Building N+T: Introducing New Board Member Jesse Baerkahn

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This month, we’re delighted to welcome Jesse Baerkahn, President & Founder of Graffito SP, to the N+T Board. Jesse is a native of Greater Boston and has spent his career building a practice of community-focused urban development and placemaking. Both through his work with Graffito and as a lawyer in private practice, Jesse has been at the forefront of brokering stronger, more intentional relationships between real estate professionals, commercial developers, retailers, and the neighborhoods and communities they serve.

N+T: We're grateful you've been an N+T champion from the start — what are you most excited about bringing to the organization by serving on the board?

JB: I’m super excited to bring the perspective of land-owners and real estate developers to the N+T board.  For so long artists have been on the asking side of the equation when it comes to finding canvases for art in the public realm, but I think a clear shift has occurred in Boston as of late. The commercial real estate community is seeing the value in bringing both world-class and hyper-local public art to their projects.  This creates so many wonderful opportunities for us, but at the same time means we have to be extra careful in picking our partners and ensuring there is creative alignment (and integrity and autonomy) as we deploy projects across the city.

There’s a buzz right now about public art. Why do you think it is suddenly so popular in Boston and what can it do for our city?

No doubt (related to my earlier sentiments) much of this is driven by the real estate community seeing increased value in public art. And this includes the City of Boston. Because of this, I think it has become more visible and more mainstream. Though, part of me fears the dynamic that is evolving is creating an atmosphere where real estate executives now feel they need public art in their projects to be “cool”. This worries me since that mindset often does not result in a corresponding community process or project that supports the local arts scene or context-specific initiatives.  Conversely, this buzz is for sure setting a higher bar for all of us and whether it’s about being cool or not, more art in this city is definitely needed and welcomed.

How can creative placemaking and public art positively impact community development and/or celebrate neighborhood culture?

Done right (i.e. initiatives that truly consider in the specific context of a place), creative placemaking can absolutely reinforce a neighborhood’s identity and culture.  And public art is such a great medium for this reinforcement. Public art can tell a story about a place; it can also bring a neighborhood together through said storytelling process. It’s the community process that I find so inspirational in the best placemaking efforts. Further, in its best form, public art can activate or repurpose underutilized assets.  And what I’ve seen so often is that public art can actually make our urban neighborhoods safer and more legible, sometimes simply through the application of color and/or light, but also by drawing attention and eyes to spaces and places that were previously forgotten.  

You’ve been involved in Boston's art ecosystem for a number of years — what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen and what would you like to see more of?

It’s funny, but I actually feel so much less “involved” in the arts scene than many of the folks I work with on a daily basis and certainly others on the N+T board. I’ve always viewed my role more as someone who works hard to support the artists and true practitioners (thus my feeling of being on the periphery). This was the case both when I was practicing law and now through my work at Graffito. Outsider or not, I’ve gained a great perspective on (1) the challenges facing working artists and (2) our failure as a community to be more creative in leveraging the arts in our everyday lives. Lately, I’ve seen changes that I think show we are getting better at weaving art into our use and understanding of public places, but what I’d really like to see more of is how this collective enlightenment can provide economic opportunities for our local artists.